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Mining and Crime Intersect in Colombia Gold Rush Town

With over eight million hectares in Colombia already licensed for mining projects, the municipality of Anori may indicate what lies in store for the rest of the country if the links between the gold rush and the conflict deepen.

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Along the muddy road connecting Anori with the rest of the world, it is hard to see evidence of the millions of dollars of aid pumped into Antioquia, one of the most strategically important departments in Colombia. Storehouses and huts are marked with red graffiti informing residents that vehicles are "prohibited" from the roads between 8 p.m. and midnight. Other messages praise "Commander Briceño," a former guerrilla military leader; some are signed "the Bolivarian Army of the FARC-EP," as though the identity of their authors were not already clear.

It is easier to spot the source of the wealth which sustains the 36th Front, the FARC unit currently beseiging Anori. Along the riverbeds, mechanical diggers push huge piles of sand alongside filthy pools of water. During the drier summer months, hundreds of men and women with straw hats and towels tossed over their shoulders wait along the open pits until it is their turn to approach the water. Anori is a hub for gold mining and many of these artisanal miners have supported themselves for generations through the river's huge gold deposits. And now, more than ever, this is supporting the guerrilla groups in a new stage of Colombia's long war.

The FARC's Gold Rush

anori_mining

With the reduction of coca in Anori, the 36th Front has grown increasingly reliant on the extortion tax they charge for each mechanical digger working the gold mines in their territory. This shift from the drug trade to other sources of funding is representative of a larger trend seen across the region. As criminal organizations face more pressure from the security forces on their primary business of drug trafficking, they have been forced to diversify their sources of income in order to improve their chances of survival.

And thanks to the record price of gold in global markets (an ounce of gold now sells for $1,800, up from $700 in 2008), more miners are turning away from the low-impact gold panning once practiced here to a more mechanized mining. This is more efficient at extracting the resource, but has a devastating impact on the environment. And more diggers in the area means more revenue for the FARC.

In Anori, the 36th Front charges some 3 million pesos (about $1,600) for each digger which enters their territory, and then around 1 million (about $530) per month as upkeep. Miners who do not pay face having their equipment destroyed. In one mining community, locals use the burned remains of old machinery as flowerpots, or drying racks for laundry.

With an estimated 40 machines working mines in Anori, this represents a pool of money for the 36th Front. Only one mine out of dozens in the municipality operates with a legal title, indicating the larger challenge facing Colombia's government as it seeks to "legalize" the mining trade and, in theory, cut the FARC off from these profits.

A Municipality Under Siege

There are some signs of progress in this region, where gold, guerrillas and drugs have fueled violence for decades. The military's 14th Brigade has three checkpoints surrounding Anori, capital of the municipality of the same name, about 150 kilometers from Medellin, Antioquia's capital. The town also houses a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) office supporting cacao beans as a replacement for coca, the raw material for making cocaine and once the area's biggest cash crop. Ten years ago Antioquia cultivated over 10,000 hectares of coca, but now that number has dropped to about 4,500, most of it still found in Anori.

But the graffiti markings on the houses outside the district capital are only the most innocuous sign of the influence still held by the FARC's 36th Front, the dominant armed group in Anori. About two weeks after InSight Crime visited the municipality and interviewed the local police commander, he was killed by a roadside bomb. During a previous InSight visit, it was impossible to reach Anori by road because the 36th Front had blocked the road with a bus loaded with explosives. And following another trip in 2010, another police chief, who had been interviewed by InSIght, was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) and transferred from the area.

The 36th Front is not a powerful or a well-trained unit, and is thought to number as little as 60 combatants. But it is emblematic of the FARC's increased usage of hit-and-run tactics, which are proving very effective in racking up casualties among government forces. When the front carries out attacks, from planting IEDs to bombing electrical towers, they do so in groups no larger than three to four people. Getting close enough to fix infrastructure destroyed in these assaults can take weeks, thanks to the landmines planted around the affected areas. One recent attack in Anori left the entire municipality without electricity over Christmas and New Year's, and it was only reconnected on January 9.

For the 14 uniformed police officers responsible for patrolling Anori's nearly 1,500 square kilometers, the FARC's capacity to kill and maim so many with so few resources is sucking away morale. There are few patrols conducted outside the municipal capital, and a siege mentality pervades the town.

With police venturing so rarely into the countryside, other officials do so even less. During municipal elections in October, only one of Anori's three mayoral candidates bothered to campaign in the poorer and more rural precincts. This prompted a round of negative campaigning from his political rivals, who hinted that the only way to travel so freely through Anori and to remain so popular in the countryside was if he was "the FARC's candidate." This is typical negative campaigning that left-leaning candidates throughout Colombian often attract.

In reality, the 36th Front showed little interest in holding political meetings or sponsoring (or threatening) candidates during election season, compared to other fronts which remain more politically active. But the 36th Front remains heavily involved in the drug trade, storing coca base in mountain caves before selling it -- accepting cash only -- from buyers who may include the groups known as BACRIMs, heirs to the FARC's former rivals, the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The front is also representative of another trend found across the FARC: their dependence on gold mining, instead of coca, as a major source of income.

The War Against "Illegal Mining"

President Juan Manuel Santos' administration has prioritized cracking down on unlicensed mining, which the mining and energy minister has said should be combated as vigorously as drug trafficking. Colombia has at least 6,000 small-scale mines, each of which can support hundreds of miners who are not legally registered with Ingeominas, the government's main mining authority.

"Illegal" miners are individuals or companies who haven't filed a mining work plan or an environmental impact assessment with the government. In 2010, Congress passed several reforms to try and make it easier for miners to apply for licenses. By presenting receipts for gold sales, tax forms or witness testimony, individual miners could prove they had worked the legal minimum of five years to qualify for a license.

But mining authority Ingeominas was overwhelmed by the number of requests, and the legalization process quickly fell into a limbo. Mining authorities in Anori told InSight Crime that they knew of just 20 people who tried to pursue their licensing requests past the initial stages.

While the government fights a legislative battle against unlicensed mining with one hand, it has deployed the security forces with the other. In the first third of 2011, police and military closed 121 mines and arrested over 600 people, according to the President's Office. This has prompted widespread unrest and protests among mining communities, including those concentrated in northern Antioquia.

A Regional Question

The government argues that it is necessary to formalize mining in order to cut off FARC units like the 36th Front from a vital source of their income. This is the primary argument related to security concerns, although the government has cited other effects of unlicensed mining -- mercury poisoning in the rivers and other environmental damage -- as justification for the crackdown on "illegal" mining. The other issue is that, at times, the FARC are based in territory thought to be the richest in untapped resources. In Anori, the 36th Front is based in the districts thought to have the highest number of small-scale alluvial mines.

Mining leaders whom InSight Crime interviewed in Antioquia argue that the government's policy intends to make it impossible for unlicensed, small-scale miners to operate, in order to open the way for multinational investors to buy up land. Another critique is that the miners are being singled out for making extortion payments to the FARC, when in fact extortion is a widespread phenomenon, one that also affects licensed companies and their contractors in the mining or energy industry.

Such policy questions in Colombia play into other concerns across the region, including Peru and Ecuador, over how to balance the development of large-scale mining projects, many operated by multinationals, amid complaints that such enterprises threaten artisanal mining. In Colombia, the government has chosen to frame this issue partly as a security concern: because the FARC makes money by extorting small-scale miners, fighting unlicensed mining is a way to fight the FARC.

As the case of Anori shows, remnants of the FARC linger in many outposts and are still capable of harassing the state, despite a decade-long effort to secure these areas. The extra source of funds from gold mining has allowed FARC fronts like the 36th to maintain their grip in their traditional territory. But the government's decision to declare "war" against unlicensed mining may prove just as prolonged, and hard to win, as the war against drugs.

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